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It's funny how things have changed in the last two years. Instead of worrying about survival due to limited market potential, online retailers are now concerned with maintaining market share in light of massive market growth.

E-commerce and online advertising have blown away the offline alternatives in terms of revenue growth and marketing, operational and IT investment. While the offline retailing market is growing in the low single digits, online retailing has doubled in size in the last 24 months to become a $144 billion dollar market.

Meanwhile, the online advertising dollars that companies allocate in their budget are today the largest that have ever been reported. In the first quarter of 2004, $2.3 billion was spent on online advertising. That represented a 40% increase over the previous year, and it was the largest amount spent on record. The analysts who reported these results had started tracking the expansion in 1996. It's safe to say that it was the biggest quarter for online advertising in history.

A few trends are driving technology innovation and are worth noting.

The first is the important role of marketplaces like in brand development and merchandising. Although growing your top-line revenue is an important driver in a merchant relationship, it's only part of the story. Merchants benefit when customers associate their positive shopping experience with the sellers' brands, elevating the third-party retailer in the eyes of the consumer.

Second, we see a trend toward SKU-level—or item-specific—merchandising. Your brand image is critical. But if you're not thinking about merchandising in terms of the most detailed product attributes and variables—pricing, title, description, keywords—you're not fully leveraging available merchandising control.

An expansion is definitely occurring in the way that brands and products are reaching consumers—not just in the number of channels, but also in the number of value-added intermediaries involved in each promotion or transaction. Retailers, catalogers and direct marketers are connecting with customers where they shop and buy through partner-enabled channels, combining services from merchandisers such as, advertising portals and affiliate networks. I call these channels Distributed Merchandising Networks.

Also, online shoppers are becoming savvier at evaluating competing product offerings and merchants on the Web.

Whether they purchase online or offline, shoppers increasingly base their perceptions of a retailer's selection, service level and brand image on the online experience. The depth and quality of information that retailers provide through online marketplaces and shopping portals exceeds that of other promotional tools such as search engine marketing.

So, we see these channels as critical for establishing credibility with consumers.

As buyers become more informed, with more options for where and how to buy, merchants have to understand how and where they engender or lose customer trust. You can drive traffic to your online store all day, but if it's hard for customers to find the right product, items are out of stock, and returns are difficult… you're wasting your budget.

Retailers that expect a high ROI on their merchandising dollars have typically established and are meeting a published service level defining their fulfillment terms, customer service level and so on. You can't fight bad service and a bad reputation with more ad spending for long.

Once you've addressed the service level issue, then it becomes a question of creativity in reaching your customers—in the sense of both getting your message in front of them and then establishing that emotional connection.

That can be hard to do in a comparison-shopping environment where more and more sellers are meeting more and more customers on what you might call "neutral ground." Again, it gets back to offering the most complete and timely information about your products—and, at the same time, communicating your unique value proposition, whether it's price, service or domain expertise, through the merchandising medium.

Knowing what sets you apart from your competitors—ideally a combination of all of these benefits—makes it easier to create consistent messaging across channels.

There's a timing element to this as well. To be competitive, you have to present the most current information in terms of inventory and pricing to your customers, whether they are on your own e-commerce site or within a remote channel.

With the advent of more structured tools based on XML Web services, it's possible to greatly improve the timeliness of data presented to customers through third-party channels.

Distributed merchandising networks imply a growing "distance" between the customer point of sale and the seller, and an increase in the number of intermediaries involved in merchandising and selling. The ability to manage these intermediaries becomes a key driver of sales performance, brand stewardship and customer experience.

Retailers, catalogers, and direct marketers should approach these distributed partner relationships with the same level of intelligence and discipline that they have applied to their direct sales operations.

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Eric Best

is Founder and CEO of Mercent (